The American Research Center in Eygpt

Quseir Fort Visitors' Center Project

Quseir Fort Visitors' Center Project

Quseir Fort Visitors' Center Project

Quseir Fort was founded in 1571, as documented in a firman discovered in the Top Kapi archives in Istanbul, fifty-nine years after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt. It was one in a series of forts on both sides of the Red Sea constructed against incursions by the Portugese who were by this time a serious commercial power in the Indian Ocean and a potential threat to the Hajj routes. By the mid-eighteenth century the fort was no longer strategically important although Quseir remained significant in trade with Arabia and the Far East.

By the 1990s, Quseir was the only Red Sea town preserving historic authenticity and it was attracting greater visitor numbers and new hotel investment. Under the Mubarak-Gore Agreement for Sustainable Tourism, ARCE received grant funds from USAID in 1995 to undertake heritage conservation work at sites in the Red Sea region. At a time when a rapid increase in tourism development on the coast was threatening natural and cultural resources, ARCE implemented the USAID grant with the creation of the Antiquities Development Project (ADP) and adopted the Quseir Fort under this initiative.

View of the fort and its position in Quseir town, Red Sea in background. Photo: Patrick Godeau (1996)

The historic ports of Quseir and Quseir al-Qadim lie at the Red Sea end of the route through the Wadi Hammamat between the Nile Valley at Qift and the coast. While Quseir al-Qadim had been excavated and documented, the later settlement, eight kilometers to the south, was poorly documented and recorded. The first task of the project was thorough documentation, particularly of the fort, relying on local knowledge, archival research and archaeological work at the site itself. The second stage was conservation of the building, followed by the installation of the visitors’ center in the form of walkways, information panels and displays.

Historic Background Based on Archival Research

Following the French invasion of Egypt in 1798, a Napoleonic garrison occupied the fort and its outmoded defenses were upgraded. These works were still in progress when two British warships arrived in August 1799, mounted a bombardment from the sea that lasted sixty-four hours firing 3000 cannon balls at the fort, attempted a failed landing with sepoys and the loss of a landing craft, and were repulsed by the defenders. The French force finally abandoned the fort after their defeat at the Battle of the Nile in 1801.

The Fort was re-garrisoned during Mehmet Ali’s Arabian wars and is remembered as the port through which Ibrahim Pasha imported the Arabian horses that became the ancestors of the modern bloodlines in Egypt. A military occupation continued into the twentieth century with the coastguard maintaining a desultory presence in the gradually decaying surroundings of the fort until the 1970s.

By the 1980s local indifference threatened the fort with demolition. Its survival was thanks to Mr. Kamal al-Din Hussain Abd al-Rahim, local historian, member of parliament for Quseir and admirer of Margaret Thatcher, and one of the project’s most important resources. The Supreme Council of Antiquities took over guardianship of the site in the 1980s.

Archaeological Evidence: Building Study, Survey and Excavation

Thorough photographic documentation of existing conditions was carried out by Patrick Godeau before any intervention and again after the project was complete. The archaeological work directed by Charles Le Quesne was able to determine the building sequence preserved in the standing remains and to identify the internal layout discernable in the foundations of destroyed structures within the walls. Among the artifacts recovered that illustrate Quseir’s interconnections and importance as a trading emporium were sixteenth and seventeenth century blue and white imported Chinese porcelain and Yemeni coffee cups. Thirty-seven Arabic texts, mostly letters written on paper concerning trade in dates and wheat with Arabia were found in re-deposited rubbish used in the French defensive works that thickened the walls to withstand cannon fire. Archaeo-botanical remains show the difference between what was eaten in Quseir during the earliest occupation and the introduction of New World crops in the later phases. A fine sequence of Ottoman pipe bowls was also found attesting to the arrival of tobacco.

Conservation and Installation of the Visitors' Center

Laying out the pathways and constructing the map to cover the cistern. Photo: Michael Jones (1998)

The Fort courtyard had been used as a soccer pitch since the coastguard relinquished the site; so one of the first tasks was to find a suitable alternative location for it nearby. Pathways were laid out across the courtyard connecting the various parts of the fort; the entrance, the three surviving corner towers, the circular tower and the underground water cistern. The cistern was protected by a concrete slab with a stone map of Egypt. The round tower was fitted with an internal steel spiral staircase leading to a viewing platform on top and displays inside showing Quseir on the Hajj route between Africa and the Hejaz.  Nicholas Warner managed the conservation work and building work for the visitors’ center on site.

Other indoor displays show Bedouin life, trade routes overland and by sea and quarries and mines of the Eastern Desert. The arrangement is designed to lead visitors into the different sections of the fort to experience the building itself as well as to learn about the history and cultures of the region. Mallinson Architects designed visitor arrangements and displays with assistance from Willeke Wendrich and Hans Barnard.

View of courtyard after conservation and vistors’ center installation. Photo: Robert ‘Chip” Vincent

Outdoor displays include eight cannons dating from the Napoleonic era. Four had been displayed in front of the Town Hall and were donated by the Mayor, two were rescued from the police station and two were found at a forge waiting to be melted down. Cannon conservation was carried out with advice from HMS Victory Naval Museum, Portsmouth, England.

In the courtyard, industrial archaeology is on display in the form of trucks from the Quseir Phosphate Factory, an Italian enterprise established in 1916 that continued to be a major employer in the town until the 1960s when a new phosphate factory was built at Safaga. A replica of a qatyra, a traditional pearl diving boat was made by local shipwrights and is displayed beside illustrative panels reproducing watercolors by Captain Robert Moresby now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, showing such craft moored on the beach at Quseir in about 1830. Reports and documentation of all aspects of the project are preserved in ARCE’s archives in Cairo.

Display in corner tower showing overland trade routes - power provided by solar panels. Photo: Robert ‘Chip’ Vincent

Useful Publications

D. Crecelius, “The Importance of Qusayr in the Late Eighteenth Century”. JARCE 24, 1987, 53-60.

Kamal al-Din Hussain Abd al-Rahim, Bunubart wa al-Qusayr wa al-Mu‘ark al-Ra’isiyah fy Ganub al-Sa‘id. In Arabic. Cairo, Al-Ahram, 1996.

C. Le Quesne, Quseir; An Ottoman and Napoleonic Fortress on the Red Sea Coast of Egypt. ARCE Conservation Series No. 2 Cairo and New York, AUC Press, 2007.

The project was directed and managed by Michael Jones. Important contributors and participants were: Abd al-Hamid Amin Ibrahim (SCA Inspector), Hans Barnard, Theo Gayer-Anderson, Slobodan Ilic, Richard Keen, Nils Kulleseid, Charles Le Quesne, Michael Mallinson, Brian Martinson, General Muhammad al-Muqaishat (Mayor of Quseir), Peter Sheehan, Nicholas Warner, and Willeke Wendrich.

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